Reaching into my mail bag, I've gotten a couple of interesting comments. One brings up some really interesting stuff (at least in my mind) that I want to talk about. But first this:
Give props and you shall receive props
I got this comment from Paul Eckert at Reuters after I had complimented the work of some of their photographers' work during the FTA riots last week:
I passed on your compliments to our photographers at Reuters Seoul. They are both soft-spoken and mild-mannered yet courageous pros who always find themselves in the thick of things and have great crowd sense. Kim Kyung-hoon came in bandaged today after taking a pelting by stones on his forearm. Our TV crew had the windows of its car smashed out in the melee. Thanks for mentioning them by name.I like using pictures when I can. It adds color to my admittedly plain-looking blog and like they say; a picture's worth a thousand words. I try to credit my pics when I can. It's the least I can do since I'm not able to pay for them (this being a non-commercial blog and all).
This also confirms what I had long suspected: That reporters and producers regularly check out the Korean Bloggerista. It makes sense since many of us are always looking for the latest news or a new angle on current events. It would be silly for people in the media not to take advantage. That is especially true for Korean-literate bloggers like The Marmot and Oranckay.
There is competition between nations. If you don't compete, you die.
Now lets move on to the letter that inspired the title of this post. My most commented on post by far was a piece I did on oriental romanticism in the movie "The Last Samurai" last month. That included an exchange of several comments between myself and "NIX." The pertinent part here was at the end of his last comment:
(A)bout the feudal system, there are many people around the world that are content with their way of life, even if it may seem backwards to some. And Americans cannot tell them that if you do not adopt Western ways then they are backwards. Isn't it more important to be satisfied than to "progress"? Only countries that are not "happy" feel the need to conquer other civilizations, to pillage and to control.
Not everything in life should be a competition. Sometimes "primitive" is good.
As my output on this blog shows, I'm one of the laziest people on God's Good Earth. I would love to live in a world without competition. However, that is just not possible for people. Nor is it possible for nations here is why:
As Jared Diamond points out in his book Guns, Germs and Steel, the Eurasian land mass between 25 and 55 degrees north has been prime real estate for human activities over the last 8,000 years or so. Diamond explains that due to climate and geography, those areas supported more domestic plant and animal species (which could support human advancement) than any others. It is not an accident that most of the great empires in history (China, Persia, Rome, among others) have risen from those parts of Eurasia.
Now, Diamond's book is good but it only takes us as far as agricultural and pastoral-based systems. A perfect companion book is Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. Kennedy's book picks up just as Europe is breaking into the early industrial period. In his opening chapter, Kennedy surmises that it was the competition between rival states in Europe that allowed them to surpass both China and the Ottoman Empire. The later two had a monopoly of power in their respective areas. This led to a comparative stagnation in development when those two empires turned inward while Europe's power grew with each new leap in technology. This link has passages from Kennedy's book relating to China.
(Going to Yangban thinking here.) So we have some people who sit on prime real estate and others who are relegated to the periphery. If your nation happens to hold some of this prime land, I guarantee you, someone else will try to take it. That is why most civilizations grew and expanded from the same latitudinal belt in Eurasia and why they had to almost continuously fight to keep control of that land.
Looking at China, we see some of the most fertile land in the world. It supported huge populations and was relatively easy to transverse. This lent itself to the creation of large empires, one of which would eventually become China. Now, once your tribe (nation, empire) had control of those plains, the other tribes were stuck in a peripheral position: There was desert and scrubland to the north (Mongols and Jurchens), Rocky islands and a peninsula to the east (Koreans and Japanese), Jungles to the south (Vietnamese, Khmer among others), and mountains in the west (Tibet and Turkish tribes). So for most of history, controlling China made you the cat-daddy of East Asia and there was little that any of the other nations could do about it.
Once you've got that prime real estate, you have to hold it and believe me, someone else will want to take it. Because it had the power that comes from having the most productive land, few invasions of China were successful. Some of the more notable exceptions being the Mongolians in the 13th century and the Manchus (Jurchens) in the 17th century. Of course, the Japanese failed dismally (Great link) in their attempt in 1592 (thanks in part to ubber stud Lee Sun-Shin).
On the other hand, even with its great resources China didn't have enough power to control all of Asia. While it had the power to take out any one of its neighbors, it could not do so without making itself vulnerable to others. Furthermore, maintaining control of less productive areas far from China's base would have been a prohibitively large drain on its resources. So even China had limits on how much territory it could control.
But having the best land in Asia gave China another advantage. Because its land could support large populations, there rose in China huge numbers of "non-productive" classes; artisans, scholars, scientists and bureaucrats. These groups established and maintained China's technological and cultural superiority over its neighbors for most of the last 2500 years or so. That cultural superiority helped maintain China's position as the "Middle Country" as many other nations borrowed heavily from China and venerated Chinese institutions (none more so than the Koreans).
Indeed, after the few times China was conquered, the conquerors adopted Chinese ways rather than the other way around. That was a similar process as what happened when Rome conquered Greece and (to some extent) when the Crusaders clashed with Arab civilization.
So what happened to make China fall behind? To oversimplify things (and that is what the Yangban does best), China got lazy and there was no other kid on the block strong enough to call them out on it. Sure, the Manchus gave China a bit of a kick, but they quickly sat on the laurels that the Ming were keeping warm for them. If someone had done that in Europe the Hapsburgs or the Bourbons would have been on them like white on rice.
What the industrial revolution did was allow more peripheral nations (such as Britain and Japan) to develop power without having a large agricultural base. By the time the Chinese realized that they needed to get with the program it was too late and they were subjected to over a hundred years of European (chiefly British) and Japanese dominance.
That industrial-based rise in power also allowed European nations to compete (and win) against nations in every corner of the world. Contrary to popular thought, Europeans didn't invent imperialism, they just globalized it.
So the history shows this: You snooze, you lose. Less "competitive" societies will always fall to more dynamic societies. Going back to Japan, that means 19th century Japan had to either adapt or be overtaken. That's a simple choice if you ask me.
(OK, this post is already too long and I haven't even gotten to America yet. I guess I'll save that for another post.)